Book Review of “My Name is Venus Black” by Heather Lloyd
From Goodreads: “Venus Black is a straitlaced, straight-A student obsessed with the phenomena of astronomy—until the night she commits a shocking crime that tears her family apart and ignites a media firestorm. Venus refuses to talk about what happened or why, except to blame her mother. Adding to the mystery, Venus’s developmentally challenged younger brother, Leo, suddenly goes missing.” It also says, “In this gripping story, debut novelist Heather Lloyd brilliantly captures ordinary lives upended by extraordinary circumstances. Told through a constellation of captivating voices, My Name Is Venus Black explores the fluidity of right and wrong, the meaning of love and family, and the nature of forgiveness.”
I want to note straight off that I got this ARC from the publishers by accident. See, I got an email from a Penguin Random House publicist offering me copies of a few of their February releases. So, I clicked on the cover of this one, and it automatically ended up on my NetGalley dashboard. That made me feel obliged to read and review it, and now that I have done, I’m glad that I did, even though this is far from a perfect novel.
Let’s start with the problems I had with this book. To start off, Venus tells her story in first person, which is fine. However, using this mechanic, the narrator can’t be omnipresent, so this meant that Lloyd needed to move to third person narrative when delving into the action of the other characters. That is also totally reasonable, but it can be problematic if the author doesn’t do something to ensure that the two different points of view are kept distinct, in one way or another. For example, Michael Ondaatje, was able to overcome this by making the action that the protagonist couldn’t know about as part of the protagonist’s imagination. Other authors will alternate chapters to distinguish first from third person sections. Lloyd, however, did neither of these, and I found it disturbing and confusing when the point of view slipped between first and third person within chapters and sometimes even within the same paragraph.
The other problem I had with this book was its ending. There’s a whole section before the epilogue which attempts to tie things up nicely. While that can be good, the fact is that several of these solutions to felt highly unlikely and unbelievable. All things considered, with what happens in this book, I think this book would have had a much more powerful ending if everything after the titular line is said by the protagonist (sorry, can’t say more, to avoid spoilers) had been left out, and gone straight from there to the epilogue – which was outstanding. I believe that life isn’t tidy, and therefore fiction doesn’t need to clean things up for us. Furthermore, I also believe that authors do us a favor if they leave us guessing and imagining for ourselves what happens to these people after the end of their novels.
That aside, I must praise Lloyd on what was otherwise a very powerful and complex story, with very sympathetic characters. One of the things that made this book special is how Lloyd went about telling us what Venus did on that fateful night. Instead of giving us the whole picture in one fell swoop, Lloyd gives us crumbs all along the way. This keeps the readers guessing and while trying to understand everything about what happened, we also slowly get to know Venus better. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the most admirable examples of developing a compelling character I’ve ever read. All the characters here – not just Venus – grow and change throughout the book, without it ever feeling forced or unrealistic.
To top all that off, Lloyd also gives us a multifaceted story, with conjoining plots and timelines. This could easily have been confusing, but as Lloyd did with Venus’ crime, this all gets carefully pieced together by the end of the book. Admittedly, because of the book’s title, initially I did get slightly frustrated that this novel didn’t focus solely on Venus, but when I realized that this would have left out a very essential part of the plot, I decided this wasn’t a problem here, and in fact, Lloyd turned it very much into a major advantage.
All told, this was a very happy accident for me to get this book. As far as characterizations and plots are concerned, this book was spot on the money, and written in a deceptively simple, but gripping prose. That I had a problem with some of the shifts in the points of view, and could have done without some of the ending, doesn’t mean that other readers won’t be able to ignore this (or disagree with me) and fully enjoy this novel. I think for all this, Lloyd has proven herself to be quite a talented writer (and one to watch out for), and I’m recommending this book with a solid four out of five stars.
Dial Press (a division of Penguin Random House) released “My Name is Venus Black” by Heather Lloyd on February 28, 2018. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for inviting me to read the ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.